February 19, 2006

Mencken's Britishisms

Marc W. points out (in the comments to my earlier post on the word "quite") that Hugh Laurie addressed the topic in a recent Playboy Magazine Q&A:

I'm constantly confused by the difference between the English and American quite. They're almost opposite. Americans seem to use quite to mean very, exceptionally, extremely. "Your tie is quite nice." If an Englishman said that, it would mean your tie is so-so. If someone says, "I saw the show last night. It was quite good," I think, Oh, what the hell did we do wrong? I have to remind myself.

And reliably on-topic commenter Josh turns up this BBC article by Harold Evans, correctly noting that its author "pulls the same routine as you [meaning Dr. Frank] from the other side using similar stereotyping":

I can only think that the nascent English taste for reticence and understatement flowered in years of adversity - stiff upper lip and all that - while expansive America has always been in search of superlatives to express its boundless optimism whatever the facts may suggest.

So "quite" was expunged as a qualifier and got co-opted to mean very, and very, you understand, is the least approbation you can give and has to be tacked on to the chorus of terrific, splendid, awesome, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious by which everyday achievements are greeted.

Evans also quotes Mencken from 1921's The American Language (which can be read in context here):

In England quite means “completely, wholly, entirely, altogether, to the utmost extent, nothing short of, in the fullest sense, positively, absolutely”; in America it is conditional, and means only nearly, approximately, substantially, as in “he sings quite well.”
Evans and Josh conclude from this that Americans used to use "quite" in its ironic (contemporary British) sense, but that this has changed since 1921. But how to account for the fact that Mencken apparently also thought that the Brits of 1921 used it in the contemporary American sense?

We're still dealing with being separated by a common language here, even in trying to explain the ins and outs of the separation. Of course "quite" has a number of different shades of meaning in each linguistic-cultural context; moreover, different meanings can certainly exist side by side within the same context. And I wouldn't be at all surprised if the American usage of "quite" has itself shifted slightly since 1921. Yet maybe this is merely my own linguistic parochialism at work here, but I admit I'm skeptical about Mencken's apparent implication that the primary literal, OED sense of "quite" did not exist in the American English of 1921. There are two different senses of the word "quite" being discussed here, one of which he identifies as more characteristically British (i.e., ironically, the contemporary "American" sense) than the other. But they're in the same ballpark: one means "extremely"; the other is more like "substantially" or "sufficiently." But the meaning of "quite" in its contemporary British sense as "not quite" doesn't appear to be known to Mencken.

But Evans doesn't realize (and this is what I love about the passage in his essay) that Mencken isn't in fact talking about the sense of "quite" that he is interested in. (Hence his belief that Americans have "co-opted" an original ironic meaning by making it literal.) As Hugh Laurie says, when a Brit says your tie is "quite nice," he means it's "only so-so"; and he may well mean it's "bloody awful." This sense does not exist in contemporary American usage of the word. And it's not, I believe, what Mencken is getting at by saying that the American "quite" can mean "nearly, approximately, substantially." (There's something fishy in that "nearly," though, I admit; maybe there's a hint of irony after all, somewhere in American usage, though if so it's nowhere near as widespread as it is in Britain.) At any rate, Mencken himself uses "quite" in the sense of "sufficiently" all over the place in his book: for example, "the man's meaning was quite clear." Mencken doesn't necessarily mean that the man's meaning was "supercalifragilisticexpialidociously" clear. But neither does he mean that the man's meaning was "not clear" or "not very clear." That's the usage Evans is intending to address, and it's not the one being discussed by Mencken in that passage.

British English speakers always tend to assume that differences in American usage of English are the result of secondary developments on the American side, modifications or perversions of an original British sense. But as Henry Cabot Lodge demonstrated to the skeptical Brits of his day to devastating effect in his 1896 essay "Shakespeare's Americanisms" it can work the other way, too. Many of the linguistic habits derided, even today, despite the work of HCL, by Brits as "Americanisms" turn out, on close inspection, to be Elizabethan in origin ("Fall" instead of "Autumn," "had gotten" where a Brit would say "had got," "I guess" for "I suppose," etc.)

Some divergences, like "quite," are much more recent. But there is no question that the American usage of "quite" is the "original" one, the ironic usage a mere "Britishism." Look it up: the British meaning does not even appear to have made it into that esteemed chronicle of quaint Americanisms known as the Oxford English Dictionary.

The ironic, colloquial contemporary British sense that Hugh Laurie is referring to appears to have emerged at least post-1921, as Mencken seems unaware of it. (And Brits realize this on some level: as the British commenters on the Suicide Girls thread indicate, "quite"-meaning-"extremely" is thought of as "posh," a relic of a Bertie Wooster-y Edwardian world more to be pitied than censured.) I would love to know, specifically, what happened to "quite" in Britain after 1921. Because the Brits really wreak holy havoc on the Queen's English from time to time, don't you know?

Posted by Dr. Frank at February 19, 2006 05:27 PM | TrackBack

"I would love to know, specifically, what happened to 'quite' in Britain after 1921."

ObObvious: so you'd quite like to know, then?

Posted by: Gary Farber at February 20, 2006 02:40 AM

" Because the Brits really wreak holy havoc on the Queen's English from time to time, don't you know?"
Quite so.

Posted by: Kathy K at February 20, 2006 03:00 AM

Has "cheers" been delved? Seems there's another ocean-wide difference in usage. Cheerio and multiple cheers' are now more confused in my mind than ever since a London visit. ~m

Posted by: mikey (sacto) at February 20, 2006 06:54 AM

An oblique link:

"Has 'cheers' been delved?"

My purely American understanding of the general British usage is that it means "hello" and "goodbye" and "be well" and "tootles" and "back at you," pretty much all at once, or at least equally any of the above. It seems rather a multi-tasking, multiple-use, very convenient, word.

But I'd welcome the views of others, particularly Britons (ideally from various regions) on this.


Posted by: Gary Farber at February 20, 2006 08:37 PM

it also means "thanks" and "i'm going to go ahead and start drinking if nobody else will."

Posted by: Dr. Frank at February 20, 2006 08:46 PM

ah hugh laurie...i know you've seen him play bertie wooster by now...or you should soon.

Posted by: just me at February 20, 2006 09:47 PM

What is going on now? I had a post here, too... should I go back and check them all? hey man, just kill file me again. no hard feelings. i dont even need to understand why you would do such a ridiculous thing as systematically delete every comment i've left - just confirm or deny if you are doing it. i feel a little bonkers.

Posted by: chris riordan at February 21, 2006 01:46 PM

ne'ermind... i was thinking of the first post in the "quite" saga. okay im open to the possibility of a technology glitch now.

Posted by: chris riordan at February 21, 2006 01:48 PM

i'm a bit jealous of the attention josh is getting. the misunderstood bully in the back is getting a bit angry at the teacher's pet! you better watch your topicality, mister, or you're liable to get a spitball upside the noggin.

Posted by: chris riordan at February 21, 2006 01:51 PM

Yeah Chris,

Maybe I should just keep my topicality to myself for a while, but in my defense, I am forced to sit in front of this computer for eight hours everyday.

Posted by: josh at February 21, 2006 02:46 PM

no josh, it was total mock indignation. i too, am cursed with working in front of a computer. worse yet, i work from home. i can only work on something serious for like 15 minutes at a time before i gotta do the myspace, the dr frank, the informed citizen, the big brother skateboarding message board... i make my little rounds and say my unwelcome things and then go back to work for another 15 minutes.

i just have a serious problem with focus in general, so i tend to go off on tangents and i (for serious) think dr frank disapproves of that type of nonsense.

i openly admit to putting dr. frank on a pedestal. he is my joey ramone and beverly clearly and howard stern all wrapped up into one. i honestly feel the same way i feel when my dad is "disapointed" in something i do whenever i ruffle his feathers (or imagine myself doing so)

i dont know if you remember this, but he kill-filed me a few months ago! i was under the influence of chronic chronic smoking though, i cant be held responsible for that. i still felt like i had been cast out of eden, though.

Posted by: chris riordan at February 21, 2006 07:07 PM

Did I read somewhere that what we think of as an "American accent," like the one Mr. Laurie puts on every week, is closer to how Brits spoke in 1776 than the way those social.ist Mohammed-lovers speak today? Probably not.

Posted by: Jim Treacher at February 23, 2006 11:10 AM

Hello all! This is all quite interesting! So cheers for discussing the various twists and turns of Britslang. Here's my tuppence worth (though since we've been decimal since 1971 that might have to be my 1p's worth - but I digress). I think we use both senses of the word "quite" over here in Blighty, depending on intonation and context. If I watch Hugh Laurie's Yank Dr, I mights say, "He's quite good at that American accent." What I would mean is Laurie's approximation of American speech is "close but no cigar." However, if I see Arsenal overrun Real Madrid like they did the other night I may well say, "Arsenal, they were quite exceptional," meaning they were out of this world. So I don't think it breaks down into "quite" having only one meaning here in the UK. Anyway, cheers for reading!

Posted by: Scott Duncan at February 24, 2006 04:01 PM

English "quite" orignally and fundamentally means "precisely". Depending on context, the material significance of "precisely" might be "no more than" or "no less than" - therefore the ambiguity.

Look at it this way - if some kind of superlative could be meaningful, then "quite" indicates that it would not be appropriate; "that question was quite difficult" means "a little bit difficult" or "moderately difficult". Conversely, if a superlative would not be meaningful, but a "reducing" modifier might be, then quite as in "precisely" means no modification would be correct - "that question was quite impossible" means "uncontrovertibly impossible".

That's a rule of thumb - some usages which are not self-evident have just become fixed. "quite beautiful" would be "unquestionably beautiful", but "quite pretty" is "moderately pretty". Logic only takes you so far...

As to "quite good" meaning "bad", it doesn't really, but it might be "damning with faint praise": if you're trying to be polite about something then "quite good" is about the worst you'd be willing to say. It's not irony, it's grade inflation.

Posted by: Andrew at February 28, 2006 05:03 PM

*English "quite" orignally and fundamentally means "precisely". Depending on context, the material significance of "precisely" might be "no more than" or "no less than" - therefore the ambiguity.*

Not according to the OED it didn't (originally mean "precisely," that is.) It certainly does now, in certain contexts, of course.

I've been reading about it a bit since this post (and consulting some experts - I'm probably going to post David Crystal's take on it at some point when I get around to it. The primary meaning (meaning I) in the OED of "extremely, to the fullest extent" is referred to as the "strong" sense. All occurances of "quite" in Shakespeare are "strong," and that is of course when the word crossed the Atlantic. The "weak" sense popped up on both sides of the pond in the mid-19th Century. It died out here, but sort of took over in Britain.

My sense, from hanging around Brits and being married to one and so on, about "quite good": it doesn't mean "bad," but rather "not quite" (as in not all the way) good. It means, "well, I suppose, if pressed, I'd grudgingly admit the possibility that it might be techinically 'good.' But not really." I'm sure there is a bit of damning with faint praise about it, but there's something ironic in the whole notion of damning something with praise, faint or otherwise, isn't there?

Posted by: Dr. Frank at February 28, 2006 05:21 PM